Just over the Next Ridge

Photo: Nobody planned for this. Manolo, one of our Tree Bank Co-Directors, displays two coffee leaves infected by the fungal rust pathogen Hemileia vastatrix.

Maybe one day I’ll write one of those business self-help books. “Five Rewarding Ways to Cut Your Income in Half,” or something like that. (Of course I would want to write on something that I’m good at personally.) If someday I do venture into that genre, this is the lesson that I would be most eager to impart:

Say that you want to set up some kind of enterprise. Your concept is clear and you’ve got an approach all planned out. Prospective clients welcome your idea. And you have adequate resources for a solid start. Good job, I would say. But bear in mind that none of these plans can really tell you much about the fate of your enterprise.

I wouldn’t argue that your plans are pointless. I myself have survived many bouts of planning, both chronic and acute, and have emerged better off on that account. It’s just that planning is no match for life. Here is how I know this.

For the past couple of years, I have been working with farmers in our Tree Bank project region, on the Dominican side of a section of the Dominican Republic / Haiti border, to create a program that would replant native forest canopy over large areas at low cost, or that might even pay for itself.

The idea is not complicated. The program would focus on low-value, deforested land on small-holder farms. Small-holder farmers own most of the land in the Tree Bank region — and much of what they own fits that description. This land is no longer fertile enough to be used regularly for annual crops, like corn and beans. But most of it can still support trees, and restoring it to some type of native forest — but not to monoculture tree plantations — is probably the best way to recover its fertility over the long term. The program would begin by planting a variety of native tree species. Trees grow fast in the tropics, so in several years, the plantings should be well established. At that point, coffee and cocoa trees would be planted in, to form a kind of clumpy understory below the native canopy. (Coffee and cocoa trees don’t get very tall.)

Coffee and cocoa are high-value shade-loving crops. Many Tree Bank farmers have long experience with one or both of them. The prospect of coffee and cocoa profits would provide an incentive to enroll land in the program. The Sangha would pay for the labor of establishing the plantings; our Tree Bank nursery would grow the tree stock needed and provide it at no charge to the farmers. Eventually, we would have the option of recovering some or all of those costs by importing and selling the export-quality portion of the coffee and cocoa harvest.

On the farms, the result would be a kind of modified forest — not as valuable ecologically as a real, natural forest, but far better than the parched and meager pasture that covers so much of the region now. And it would make money. Overhead, valuable habitat for birds, bats, and other creatures; below, a profit for our farmers. I see this system as probably our best bet for restoring native forest canopy on a large scale.

This type of planting would not be novel; there are various precedents for it all over the forested (and formerly forested) tropics. So the standard scenario has already proved itself. We think that we can improve upon that standard in some important ways — more about that in another post. But even the unimproved standard would create substantial benefits for our region.

So why aren’t we already planting this coffee and cocoa forest? We already have experience with coffee, an interest in cocoa, our own tree nursery, a commitment to the forests, and connections to nearly 50 farms in the region. What is stopping us? This is where life intrudes.

The idea for the program emerged in early 2014, from conversations between me and Gaspar Pérez Aquino, the Tree Bank’s Dominican Director at the time. Gaspar was also President of our local partner association, the Asociación de Productores de Bosque, Los Cerezos. Los Cerezos is the little municipality where the Tree Bank is based. Gaspar took the idea to the association membership, which endorsed it. By early summer, we were working out the details. It seemed likely that we would be able to start planting before winter arrived. (Winter in our region is too dry for planting.)

But Gaspar died unexpectedly, of a stroke, on September 3rd of that year. He had no obvious successor. It’s probably safe to say that Gaspar knew more about the local vegetation than anyone else in Los Cerezos. Gaspar was also a formidable community-level politician, and his death left many of our member-farmers wondering whether the Tree Bank would continue. Tensions within the Association, which Gaspar had been able to manage, bubbled up to the surface. For a time, it seemed that the Association might splinter into factions — factions that differed not over plans or policies, but just on account of suspicions that some people, somehow, were getting a better deal than others.

All of this took us rather far from coffee and cocoa. In short: we had to put the project on hold while we fixed the organizational problems caused by Gaspar’s death.

At about the same time, we found ourselves in the midst of another crisis. During 2014, a virulent epidemic of the coffee leaf-rust pathogen arrived in our region. The pathogen is known to scientists as Hemileia vastatrix; our farmers know it more simply as “la roya” (the rust). La roya kills coffee leaves. If a coffee tree has little resistance, several defoliations usually kill the tree itself. La roya is a wind-dispersed fungus; it is present in all of the world’s coffee-growing regions, but it is not a scourge in all of those places every year. Its effects vary for all sorts of reasons, many of them poorly understood. No one knows exactly why, but over the course of 2014, outbreaks of the fungus throughout Central America and the Caribbean coalesced into a massive epidemic that killed millions of coffee trees. By early 2015, virtually all of the coffee on our farms was dead. Our Rising Forests® Coffee program had lost its coffee supply, and the region’s most lucrative crop had vanished. (Like most Central American and Caribbean coffee producers, Rising Forests® has a warehouse reserve of raw beans from the 2013 harvest. Raw coffee keeps its flavor for several years if properly stored.)

So as we struggled to reinvent the Tree Bank’s organization, we also had to embark on a massive replanting of our coffee groves. We obtained several strains of rust-resistant seed from CODOCAFE, the Dominican coffee agency, and began growing as many coffee seedlings as the Tree Bank’s nursery would hold. We have produced thousands of seedlings since then, and we expect to produce many thousands more. But given the complete loss of the established groves, we have had to focus on replanting those areas. We couldn’t spare the trees, the time, or the nursery capacity to create any new coffee or cocoa forests.

And then a third problem gradually emerged, beginning in March 2015, which proved to be a dry month. March is usually when the spring rains begin and farmers make a start on their plantings of annual crops. In our region, no one planted in March. Then April was dry as well and by May, it was clear that we were facing a drought. Over the past several decades, drought seems to have become both more frequent and more severe in our region, probably in part because of the spreading deforestation. But global climate change may also be playing a role; 2015 saw an especially powerful El Niño effect, in which an unusually warm area of the Pacific Ocean changes climate patterns over much of the globe. Strong El Niños correlate with drought in the Caribbean basin.

The effects of the drought were greatly exacerbated by the “candelas,” the spring fires that farmers set to clear scrub from their fields. In addition to their clearing effects, the candelas are a kind of poor man’s fertilizer: soils in our region have been extensively overworked, and the burning releases nutrients locked up in the vegetation, thereby raising soil fertility — although not by much and not for long. During the dry spring of 2015, many candelas escaped, burning into nearby pasture and forest. After four months or more withou